This year, NLnet Labs will celebrate its 25th anniversary. For two and a half decades, we have stayed true to our founding principle to offer free, open-source, liberally licensed software to support core Internet infrastructure.
Throughout 2024, the Sovereign Tech Fund will support the development of one of our projects, the domain library for DNS, a toolset to provide building blocks to enable secure and private name resolution.
By Alex Band
Nurturing an Open Internet for All
To understand the context of the Sovereign Tech Fund’s mission and commitment to our cause, let’s first look at how NLnet Labs got here.
In the first fifteen years that our Public Benefit Organisation existed, the funding model to make our activities possible was simple: the NLnet Foundation ensured a handful of developers could work on research projects and open-source software as part of our mission to provide globally recognised innovations and expertise for technologies that support an open Internet for all. It acted as an incubator for some of our core DNS products. Thanks to this financial stability, NSD and Unbound exist today.
In the last decade, NLnet Labs has transitioned to an independent, self-sustaining model. To solidify the financial stability of our non-profit organisation, we now depend on several revenue streams: we offer support contracts for our production-grade products, and organisations can sponsor the development of a planned feature. We also apply for grants for specific projects and occasionally receive a donation.
This variety of income sources has ensured a healthy and financially sustainable model, allowing our foundation to have fourteen full-time developers and researchers working on several significant open-source projects in DNS and BGP routing used in critical infrastructure worldwide. We also have the financial breathing room to mentor student projects, contribute to research projects and open standards, and have dedicated staff on bridging technology and policy to look after the interests of the open-source and Internet communities.
The Value and Cost of Independence
Truth be told, it fills us with an enormous sense of pride and responsibility to have such a significant impact on the Internet's core infrastructure with such a small, independent team of dedicated people. But maintaining our financial model while sticking to our core principles—with no strings attached—is no easy feat. We manage to fund existing production-grade products, but getting new work off the ground or ensuring the maintenance of libraries and supporting tools is properly funded remains very difficult.
We didn’t have to worry about the incubation period with NSD and Unbound, but this was entirely different with our younger projects, such as our routing security projects Krill and Routinator that we launched in 2019, and more recently with our composable BGP engine Rotonda.
We were prepared to fund our initial investment in routing security software from our reserves. However, we were lucky that around the same time, the Brazilian registry NIC.br was planning to offer such services for their members. Instead of building a home-grown solution, they offered to fund one full-time employee at NLnet Labs for two years to build an open-source implementation. Along with some smaller backers, it ensured we could successfully bootstrap the project.
Today, thousands of organisations depend on Krill and Routinator in their BGP routing infrastructure. Both projects can stand on their own feet, sustained by the support contracts we offer our customers. We aim to achieve the same with Rotonda within two years.
While purchasing a support agreement for a product like a full-featured DNS resolver is often realistic to justify for an organisation, this is rarely the case for smaller tools that may be just as critical. Consider indispensable open-source projects like curl or openssl or essential yet taken-for-granted utilities like ntpd or sudo. Can a network operator or systems administrator justify a support contract or sponsoring for those?
Sovereign Tech Fund Bootstraps our domain Ambitions
We faced this financing obstacle when we decided to take our domain DNS library from a Friday afternoon project to a full-featured, production-grade offering. We could not afford to remove resources from our existing products and didn’t feel we could justify digging into our reserves for a foundational library. We were sure we would never be able to recoup the incurred cost, as this would not become a stand-alone product.
For these reasons, we are very excited to announce that the Sovereign Tech Fund is commissioning the development of the domain DNS library in 2024. It allows us to have a team of dedicated developers on this project and ensures we do not have to divert resources along the way if we have to make ends meet financially.
We look forward to sharing our progress over the next year. To learn more about what we’re building for the DNS and open-source communities, read our blog post on our vision for the DNS for the next five years and the domain milestones we have committed to.